Ask the Maester: Answers to Your Questions About the ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 4 Finale
Right about when Bran, Hodor, and what’s left of the Wonder Twins (peace be upon you, Jojen) were scampering into the hollow beneath the great weirwood, somewhere far, far north of the Wall, I realized how totally insane it is that this story is the biggest hit for HBO since The Sopranos. It feels like nerd final victory. The season finale featured a heroin-chic child-elf hurling magical fireballs at rampaging Castlevania skeletons.
It’s kind of the go-to observation that George R.R. Martin’s main achievement, in terms of reinventing the fantasy genre, has been the way his story has so ruthlessly subverted the genre’s tropes and applied shades of gray to where we’re used to only black and white. Tolkien never tried to get us to empathize with an orc, after all. I agree with this to an extent; just considering the finale, Brienne’s attempt to rescue Arya is a perfect example (Brienne is the Knight in Shining Armor, trying to rescue Arya from a situation that she knows nothing about). But underneath all the pseudo-historical medieval realism and self-aware deconstructions of well-worn fantasy structures, this is ultimately a story about dragons, ice zombies, magic elf children, and sorcery. Martin doesn’t so much subvert the tropes as bury them deep in the narrative, under a layer of sex, blood, and fire.
As the film critic Danny Bowes tweeted at me the other night, “Civilians are watching this … Holy shit.” Like 18 million civilians a week. Holy shit.
Let’s get to the questions.
Andrews asks, “Could you explain the little girl throwing fireballs? And who is the old guy in the tree?”
When the first humans — known as the First Men — arrived in Westeros from Essos, some 12,000 or so years ago, they found the continent already inhabited by a mysterious race of creatures that they came to call the Children of the Forest. In the books, the Children are described as unambiguously elven, with large, golden cat’s eyes; brown skin, freckled with pale spots; three black-clawed fingers plus opposable thumb; and large ears.
The initial contacts between the First Men and the Children were, unsurprisingly, marked by misunderstanding and violence.
The Children’s religion is best described as a form of magical animism. They worshiped places in the forest, streams, stones, and, most importantly, the weirwood trees. Legend has it that it was the Children who carved the ghostly faces into the white bark of the weirwood trees, the better to stand watch over the woods. The First Men, though, were disturbed by the faces of the weirwood trees, mostly because they are legit creepy looking. Coming upon them as they cleared the pristine woods to build their halls and castles, the First Men cut down the trees to use as firewood. I mean, that’s just what you do with wood, and how were they to know? As you can imagine, the Children considered cooking hot dogs over the burning bodies of their gods to be a brutal, sacrilegious affront, and thus began the war between the Children and the First Men, which spanned some 2,000 years. The Children have a deep connection with nature, which we can refer to broadly as magic, and they used this magic to destroy the Arm of Dorne, a land bridge linking Westeros to Essos that was the main route of First Men migration. I’m picturing thousand of little heroin elves throwing massed hadouken fireballs.
The destruction of the Arm of Dorne didn’t stem the tide of the First Men, however. Bigger and stronger than the Children, and fighting with bronze weapons from horseback (an animal never before seen in Westeros), the First Men slowly turned the tide of the war. Pushed farther and farther north, the Children, after apparently seizing Moat Cailin, attempted unsuccessfully to flood the Neck in order to break the continent in two.
Eventually — you know, after thousands of years of pointless warfare — cooler heads prevailed and a peace treaty, called “The Pact,” was agreed upon, ushering in the Age of Heroes. When the White Walkers first appeared, it was probably the Children who discovered their weakness to obsidian and, together with the First Men, drove the ice zombies back into the Lands of Always Winter. Over time, the First Men took the old gods of the weirwoods for their own, while the Children faded from view and were thought to be either extinct or the stuff of legend. But, as it turns out, the Children were just hanging out with all the other weird animals and magic hippie freaks North of the Wall.
Now, the old guy in the tree is a much longer and much, much more complicated story. In fact, even if you’ve read the five canonical books, the Three-Eyed Crow’s identity is still pretty tough to figure out, the only real clue being a brief mention of his “1,000 eyes and one” catchphrase almost as a throwaway in Book 4. Most of what we know about the Three-Eyed Crow comes from two of the prequel books — “The Hedge Knight” and “The Sworn Sword” — and those books can be a little tricky to find in non–graphic novel format. So show watchers should be confused as to who he is simply because I’m sure there are some book readers out there who don’t know, either.
The Three-Eyed Crow’s born name is Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers; he is the bastard son of King Aegon IV Targaryen (Maester Aemon’s great-grandfather), who reigned more than a century before the events of the show, and Melissa Blackwood, one of Aegon’s many highborn mistresses. Aegon IV was basically Robert Baratheon with the legitimacy of the Targaryen regime behind him; nicknamed “Aegon the Unworthy,” he was one of the worst kings in Westerosi history — which is crazy because, like, low bar — and ruled the Seven Kingdoms like an erection wearing a crown. Despite being married (to his sister, Naerys, as per Targaryen custom), he took numerous mistresses, paraded them openly through court, and basically gave zero fucks.
From King Aegon’s profligate loins sprang the seeds of open warfare. On his deathbed, the king legitimized all of his bastards, from the ones born of dalliances with tavern wenches and whores to those from highborn mistresses, the so-called “great bastards.” The ill-advised mass legitimization, along with his earlier decision to give the fabled Valyrian sword of Aegon the Conqueror — traditionally passed from king to king — to his great bastard Daemon Blackfyre instead of his trueborn heir Daeron (who later became King Daeron II Targaryen), created an environment of growing antagonism between the root-and-stem Targaryens and the Blackfyre offshoot of the family. And, so, about 10 years into King Daeron II Targaryen’s reign, the Blackfyre Rebellion broke out.
It was during the Blackfyre Rebellion that Brynden Rivers made his reputation, both for good and for ill. Though a great bastard, he stayed loyal to King Daeron, playing a key role in winning the war when his archers cut down the usurper Daemon Blackfyre and his sons during the Battle of the Redgrass Field. Good news, bad news: He won the war, but it cost him his eye and he would forever be marked a kinslayer for offing his half-brother.
After the war, Bloodraven became Hand of the King under the first, non-crazy, King Aerys. During Aerys’s reign, it was an open secret throughout the Seven Kingdoms that Brynden Rivers actually ran Westeros, and gradually the whispers about him grew darker, into rumors of spies and sorcery and dark magic. A common saying at the time was, “How many eyes does Bloodraven have? A thousand eyes, and one.”
Eventually running afoul of Aerys’s successor, King Maekar I — who is Maester Aemon’s father — Bloodraven spent an unknown amount of time in the black cells under the Red Keep (future home to Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister) before being freed to accompany Aemon on his trip to the Wall. It’s there that fake history loses track of him, until Bran & Co. find him hooked up to the weirwood roots under a hill in the far distant north some 70 years later.
What does Bloodraven/the Three-Eyed Crow/Brynden Rivers want with Bran? We shall see.
Lots of people asked, “What’s up with the crazy killer skeletons?”
Everything the White Walkers kill turns into their undead slave. So, the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons are some long-dead victims of the White Walkers. And, since they were wearing armor and chain mail, perhaps the remnants of some long-dead Night’s Watch ranging? Or even older? The knife that stabbed poor Wonder Twin Jojen appeared to be bronze, which could mean ancient First Men. And who knows how many thousands of ice zombies are up there just waiting for winter to finally come?
Greg asks, “So burning the bodies of the dead prevent them from becoming White Walkers, right? Why does that only happen north of the Wall? Is there any explanation as to how a dead body becomes a walker?”
It only happens to things killed by White Walkers, or perhaps already dead things that come into contact with White Walkers. The explanation is this: magic, yo.
Kevin asks, “Is the Mountain dead or alive?”
Alive but ailing.
Daenerys had a new title added, “Queen of the Rhoynar.” Who are they?
The Rhoynar are an ethnic group originating from the banks of the Rhoyne River in Essos. Roughly 700 years ago, the expansion of the dragon-equipped Valyrian Freehold forced the people of the Rhoyne to flee their ancestral homes. Naturally strong seafarers, the Rhoynar set out for Westeros led by their warrior-queen Nymeria (the inspiration for Arya’s wolf’s name), where they eventually became part of the region’s cultural flavor. Much of Dorne’s signature licentiousness and relative gender equality come from the Rhoynar. The Rhoynar are one of the three main ethnic groups in Westeros, along with the First Men and the Andals.
Emily asks, “How long does it take to cross the Narrow Sea, and how long will Tyrion be in that box? Why does Varys love putting dudes in boxes so much? How is he so practiced at that?”
So, very rough estimate, assuming an average speed of something like 6 knots (based on this), and using the length of the Wall (300 miles) as a measuring stick, I think we can safely assume that a straight shot to, say, Pentos from King’s Landing would take about three or four days. As for the boxes, my guess is that, in his capacity as Master of Whispers, Varys has done a lot of international shipping of super-weird shit that needs to be alive when it gets to wherever.
John asks, “How did Stannis get an entire army north of the Wall in such a short period of time? Did they all go through the tunnel at Castle Black?”
Stannis was in Braavos securing money, ships, and, obviously, dudes on horseback. For all his lack of human warmth, Stannis is a skilled leader of men-at-arms and a talented planner of combined military operations. He surely bypassed the Wall entirely, landing his ships somewhere between it and Hardhome and disembarking his troops. Using the map (I call it at maybe 2,000 miles) and speed formulation above, I estimate the trip took something like 11 days.
Katherine asks, “I’m confused about how Ayra’s coin and promises from the faceless man work. Did he promise to just come help her when she uttered that particular phrase? Did he come help her or did the boat captain just recognize the coin and help her on his own accord? Did she cash in one of her promises?”
The Faceless Men are a shadowy guild of assassins based in the Free City of Braavos who are famed for their ability to kill without leaving a trace and for being incredibly expensive. When Jaqen gave Arya the iron coin, he told her that if she ever wished to find him again she should give the coin to any Braavosi and say “Valar Morghulis.” From this, I think it’s safe to assume that the iron coin is an item specific to the Faceless Men, something that would surely be well known to the people of Braavos. Jaqen’s ability to change his appearance obviously means the assassins can look like anyone, so, as far as the ship’s captain knows, Arya is a Faceless Man in the guise of a young girl.
Ernesto asks, “Does Shae die like that in the books? What was missing from Tyrion’s escape?”
Pretty much. The only thing missing was that, in the books, Jaime reveals that Tyrion’s first wife, Tysha, really was a crofter’s daughter and not a whore, as Tywin had told Tyrion. Some may quibble, but I thought the way the show built up Shae and Tyrion’s relationship made that detail not all that necessary.
Stuart asks, “Was Tywin nailing Shae prior to the trial or was it post damning testimony that brought them together? Why did Varys testify against Tyrion but then aid and abet his escape?”
Even in the books, it’s unclear when Tywin and Shae got together. Varys testified against Tyrion because he really didn’t have any choice. Tywin wanted the trial to go a certain way; Varys just works there. As for Varys busting Tyrion out — good question. The scene from Season 1 in which Arya overhears Varys and Illyrio Mopatis, the man who arranged Dany’s marriage to Drogo, suggests that Varys has some ulterior motives that probably do not jibe with long-term Lannister concerns. A Targaryen sleeper agent? Who knows.
Eric asks, “Now that Tywin is dead (I’m sure there’s a “the King shits and the Hand wipes” joke in here somewhere), how does Tommen go about picking a new Hand? It seems like the only characters that he knows are Cersei, Margaery, and Ser Pounce. Can you have a female Hand in Westerosi traditions?”
The office of King’s Hand dates to Aegon the Conqueror, so: 300 years, give or take. There are some Hands in that time whose identities are not known, but all the ones we do know have been men. So the next Hand will probably not be a woman. But, with Tywin gone, Tyrion on the lam, and Jaime leading the Kingsguard, Cersei becomes the de facto head of the family. Seeing that Cersei’s last conversation with Tywin was an argument over her agency in her and her children’s lives, it’s safe to say that the next Hand will be someone Cersei can control.
Gar asks, “When last we saw Osha, Shaggy Dog, and Rickon, at the end of Season 3, they were headed to Castle Black (or there about). Why haven’t they got there? Where are they? What’s the deal?”
They were actually headed to Last Hearth, the seat of leal Stark bannerman Greatjon Umber, whom you might remember as the first Stark bannerman to declare Robb King in the North and the guy who lost several fingers to Robb’s direwolf at dinner. We didn’t see the Greatjon die at the Red Wedding, so it might be that he survived. Even so, it’s unlikely the Greatjon is at Last Hearth, since that would mean traversing the Kingsroad past Moat Cailin, which was only recently cleared of Ironborn.
The deal is, basically, we wait and see.
Scene of the Week: A Tribute to the Faces of Jon Snow
“OK, good, Kit. But try it sadder.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but sadder. She loved you. You loved her. C’mon.”
“Oh, that’s pretty goo— actually, no, a little bit …”